Throughout history, mental illness has been labelled and misjudged with some wacky labels. My favourite however, has got to be the whole “devil’s spawn” theory. Witchcraft, harbouring a curse, infected by evil and anything else related to the dark side. I literally find it fascinating (and humourous) that the world was ever so blind to it all.
"The transition was not overnight. It took almost 150 years of investigation, tests and analysis to officially identify that mental illness even existed (minus the little demons controlling our bodies). Even today, a huge stigma surrounds the subject of mental health, with many negative and sometimes bizarre opinions."
Once upon a time, ladies just like you and I (excuse the gents) would have been rapidly dunked into the lake tied to a rock. And now look at us; therapy, medication, understanding.. but is the stigma really done with? Well, I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a creepy step back in time and see how those with a mental illness, were considered something much more sinister...
The birth of the witch!
It all began in the 15th century. Towns were clustered with a very small amount of people, highly dominated by the males. Women were not treated with the dignity, respect or kindness they are today (in most cases). We were seen as the child-bearers, the chefs, maids and sexual servants.
For a woman to put a ‘foot out of line’ in that era would have caused quite the stir. And in some cases, caused the entire village to accuse her of witchcraft. I managed to find some of the “symptoms” of mental illness that would be deemed witch-worthy in the old days, and I’m now 100% sure I’d have been hunted! They are as follows:
- Speaking out of turn or acting irrationally.
- Refusing to participate in sexual activity. (A lack of drive)
- Speaking to ones self (I’d have been caught for this in just one morning alone)
- Irrational fears of the outdoors, animals and people.
- Hallucinating was the biggest evidential sign of witchcraft.
- Irritability, anger and insomnia.
- Being attractive; having more than one sexual partner at a time particularly.
All of these traits were confidently deemed as sorcery in those times; in today’s society, it’s actually quite common! I mean of course, some still considered a part of mental illness, but not the sort that people would pay much attention to. Take a look at poor Anne Boleyn for example.
She was accused of witchcraft and sorcery for having a sharp tongue, short temper and a habit of drawing in male attention. History itself proclaimed that Anne was believed to have hidden a 6th finger under her silk glove, which of course made her a broom-broad!
The ignorance towards mental health was astounding. But of course, without the knowledge or education, how could they have known as we do today? The only explanation to such mad behaviour from women was of course... witches were taking over! The poor ladies were hunted down one by one, killed off in horrific ways and never given the slightest mercy to plead their ‘normality’ and innocence.
Lady Anne Boleyn unfortunately fell into the trap when King Henry Viii lost interest in her. He used false accusations such as her infidelity, fiery temperament and disobedience to his commands as means of convincing the kingdom of her evil. It’s sad really, once a woman was accused of such possession, it was all over for her.
But really and truly, Anne was just a young woman with very normal womanly tendencies. She may indeed have suffered from bipolar disorder, as history proclaims her to have had very powerful swinging moods, including self-destructive lows. Mental illness was not known about (and I’m sure the lovely King Henry wouldn’t have cared much either), therefore she was executed as an unfaithful sorceress.
She wasn’t alone in the massacres either; hundreds of women followed Anne in her ‘descent to hell’ after Henry became paranoid of cults and coven in the kingdom. He was an absolute genius of spreading fear, and of course convincing his people that ‘crazy’ women were sorceress’. Just awful.
This pattern of daft belief continued until the 18th century. During which time, the poor souls who suffered with a mental illness were subjected to horrendous treatment. This included isolation, confinement to “nut houses”, exposed to rape, torture, experiments and exorcisms! It’s sickening to think that even now, electro-convulsive therapy is still used. In the 1930s, doctors and professionals finally realised that illness of the mind was legitimate. They then carried out an experiment.
in which they would literally send electricity into the brain to correct what was going wrong. Behold, the many ‘Frankenstein’s’were born! Those helpless subjects, if not completely immobilised, we’re left with horrific long term injuries, nerve and muscular problems. It amazes me how that torturous “method of treatment” is still used!
Mental illness has always been looked at with a raised eyebrow, fortunately for us, things have become a lot less sadistic in terms of understanding and treatment. In many countries, including France, manic patients were used as a display called “freak shows”. The less manic patients were made to beg on the streets. We were not considered human beings, and certainly were not treated as such.
How did we go from spawns of evil to just ‘people with an illness’?
The transition itself was not overnight. It took almost 150 years of investigation, tests and analysis to officially identify that mental illness even existed (minus the little demons controlling our bodies). Even today, a huge stigma surrounds the subject of mental health with negative and sometimes bizarre opinions on it.
In extreme religious cases, some still perceive mental illness to be linked with the possession of the devil. Would someone having an epileptic seizure be accused of witchcraft? I think not. [Editor's note - sadly this did exist and still does, in some instances.] Talking to yourself is seen as madness, but praying to ‘God’ was the norm? I don’t get it. As more and more people began experiencing mental health issues, the idea of evil spreading so vastly became a little less plausible. And abracadabra, the mental health act was established in 1959 to protect our little coven from mistreatment! Round of applause to the new age professionals.
After a very long, expensive and doubted series of experiments, it was finally proposed that illness of the mind was a valid disability. Brain scans were conducted to identify the differences in an ill and healthy mind; long term therapy and analysis on patients were documented and studied, right up until today, the theory of mental health is still in the midst of solid acceptance.
Let’s end our Hallowe'en special on a more positive note shall we? My absolute favourite subject of study has been of the ‘Shamans’. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, Shamanism is the belief and practise of harbouring our spiritual energies and powers through controlling our own minds. The Shamans massively believe that those with a mental illness have a much vaster sense of power, but do not know how to use it to its full potential. Depression and anxiety is seen as a psychic crisis in which we are struggling to control the frequency and strength of our cognitive powers.
They worship and empower patients of mental illness, and provide a lot of charity work and help within hospitals. In many cases, patients have been “cured” with the help and knowledge of a Shaman and learning how to take full control of their minds. Amazing! I myself find it refreshing to know that at least one group of people, going back centuries, never saw mental illness in a negative or daunting light.
So that concludes my history of Halloween horrors; a history of witches, Frankenstein’s and fortune tellers! Going back to my childhood, Halloween and Christmas were always happy times. I’ve held onto my childlike festivity, which has hugely benefited me in maintaining a positive and happy outlook as the weather grows darker. Hold onto the child in you, folks. Try to find the happiness and humour in everything. The fight to rights and acceptance for mental illness continues, but evidently we have come a long way
Happy Halloween to all of my witches and wizards, who amaze me every day in their strength against mental illness.
Jessica Murray is a freelance writer who lives with borderline personality disorder.